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Top Blog: ‘Employer branding should hurt a little’

It is a misconception that companies want to hire the absolute best. What counts is hiring ‘the best among the available’.

But which employee suits your company? And how can job candidates know whether your company suits them? The secret is differentiation. This can get a boost through good employer branding, aimed at deterring rather than attracting people. Employer branding has to be unsettling and should hurt a little too.

Admittedly, this is not based on empirical testing, but our gut tells us that 80 percent of all vacancies use the following keywords: growing business, great career opportunities, diversity, sustainable, team-oriented.

This is understandable as they are all important values for a company. These values are not conducive to the image of that company as an employer, however,  as 80 percent of companies in the same sector are seeking to embody these values.

The conclusion must be that the average employer fails to stand out from the crowd. In fact, most organisations seem interchangeable on paper.

From sellers’ market to buyers’ market

Every professional journal that you open provides examples of employer branding. The number of vacancies is gradually rising due to demographic change and a shortage of skilled labour, whereas the demand for jobs is dropping. The job market is evolving from a sellers’ into a buyers’ market, as the Confidence Index report 2018 confirms.

This is the same trend that we saw several decades ago, when the products and services markets turned into a buyers’ market. Buyers were king and would base their policies on advertising, marketing and PR. Companies were fast to respond to this development.

When it comes to labour-market communication, however, it apparently takes a little longer for the importance of good communication to sink in. The notion that successful businesses must not only compete at product level but also in the labour market has not settled in everyone's minds yet. Good employer branding ideally leads to the desired competitive advantage, in that a company clearly positions itself and keeps its employer brand up to date.


The long road from awareness to action

Practice is more intractable however. As so often in life, the step from awareness to action is still too large. Employer branding is still in its infancy in most companies, and the tool box where people get their tools only contains a blunt saw.

This probably has two reasons:

  1. Communication and marketing experts at companies have insufficient impact on the development, implementation and maintenance of the employer brand.
  2. Companies that really want to use their employer brand to stand out from the competition must know exactly who they are and have the courage to tell everyone.

Courage and self-knowledge

Let's look a bit closer at the second reason. What do employers need to assume a clear position compared with the competition? Knowledge of your own qualities and abilities and of your place in the playing field. This sounds rather obvious, but it isn't. It takes a lot of time and effort, after all, to discover the differences between the desired, actual and communicated identities of your organisation.

But let's assume you have properly mapped these differences or have had someone do it for you. What is the next step in choosing the right position? Mainly courage. To distinguish yourself as an employer, you must muster the courage to show that you are indeed distinctive.

1. It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you."

Be visible, practise what you preach, actions speak louder than words; feel free to add a few more. A clear point, it seems to me, and endorsed by Christian Bale in 'Batman begins' for that matter.

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You can then start developing your employer branding strategy further by also stressing other values that are important to you.

2. ‘Habe den Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen.’ (‘Have the courage to use your own brain’.) (Immanuel Kant)

Let's take Wisse Kommunikatie as an example: the project management item in our proposals always contains the phrase ‘offering solicited and unsolicited advice'. We consciously select people on these traits during job interviews: thinking along and participation. Our consultants are independent people, who don't merely follow instructions. We need people with the ability to investigate, reflect, form an opinion and defend it. We need people who can identify and solve a problem even before the client even noticed there was one.

3. “What use is freedom of thought, if it will not produce freedom of action?” (Jonathan Swift)

Our German partner agency Komm.passion uses this statement as a motto to give substance to its ‘employer brand' and has taken measures to give everyone a certain degree of responsibility. To this end, our colleagues replaced their rigid team structure with flexible discipline and location-independent working groups.

Project owners (POs) manage complete accounts and acquisition processes while bearing full responsibility for budget management and resource planning. The PO's position on the company career ladder is unimportant; anyone can be a PO, from the general manager to the latest intern. Nor are there any team leaders anymore: middle management has been cut altogether. This system enables Komm.passion to put the POs in leadership roles at all times, giving them the freedom to make their own decisions and the responsibility to make these decisions a success.

4. “Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice” (Steve Jobs)

An important result of thinking and acting independently is the challenging of conventions and habits. And sometimes even reality. Is this right because it is always done this way? Is this true because everyone says so? Of course not! That is probably the message your company wants to send as well.

In the best cases, this independence leads to some degree of ‘eccentricity’, literally a move away from the crowded centre, the mainstream. A place where your own personality shines through. Many people and companies, including Steve Jobs’, see this as a positive trait; they thrive on being and being seen as different and sometimes even outright weird.

5. ‘Just do it’ (Nike)

Once you know who you are, what you stand for, and how to distinguish yourself, you're ready for employer branding. It’s as simple as that. And we have supported a large number of clients in developing this type of branding.

We developed a campaign, for instance, that put thyssenkrupp on the map as ‘provider of mobility solutions’ rather than a ‘supplier of stair lifts’. While this wasn't even a specific labour market campaign, it certainly has not hurt the image of this multinational among potential job candidates.

In the same vein, we have developed the #dezorgzoalszeis (#healthcare-like-it-is) campaign for an institution that doesn't want to hide behind the strictness of government policies but wants to take responsibility for its own actions.

We have thus put many companies on the map as socially responsible, have had enthusiastic ambassadors of care institutions recruit new colleagues via video messages and have supported other care providers in developing HR policies driven by transparency in internal communication.

So there are plenty of examples that all share the same characteristic: we just did it.

Performance through selectivity

Once your branding campaign is up and running and you know which employees you would like to hire, you will automatically become aware of many more employees out there who you don’t wish to hire at all. You will also find out that a lot of people won't warm to your organisation either. And that is just fine.

In fact, it is crucial! After all, being distinctive as an employer and recruiting the right people starts with employer branding aimed at selectivity rather than pleasing everyone.

Serge Beckers